The realm of preschool programming has long been the domain of public broadcasters, and the children who grew up watching Sesame Street 30 years ago are now parents searching for shows for their toddlers.
Public broadcasters earned their trust all those decades ago, but now commercial broadcasters have gotten into the game and several are quickly becoming relied upon as alternatives for preschoolers. To find out how these relatively new players are working to gain the trust of preschoolers’ parents, who ultimately have their hands on the remote, we’ve looked at the broadcast universe in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada.
Lack of advertising is a key reason cited by parents for turning to public broadcasting for their preschool children.
That hasn’t seemed to have hindered the success of cable broadcaster Nickelodeon and its weekday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. preschool block Nick Jr. Commercials for advertisers such as Nestlž’s Quik and Mattel air between shows on Nick Jr.
Brown Johnson, senior vice president of Nick Jr., says that the network has spent over US$100 million on the Nick Jr. block since relaunching it with expanded original programming in 1994. According to Johnson, Nick Jr. has doubled its ratings since the relaunch. As well, signature shows like Blue’s Clues and Little Bear are challenging established PBS favorites like Arthur, Barney and Sesame Street in terms of ratings.
Johnson says market research with parents has played an integral role in Nick Jr.’s success. ‘We knew how important parents were, and we went out and asked them about what they were looking for in television for their preschoolers,’ she says.
Nick Jr. targets parents with ads in parenting magazines and on the adult-targeted Nick at Nite prime-time block. Licensed merchandise for Nick Jr. programs also talks to parents: each Blue’s Clues toy has a parent-targeted hangtag attached to it and a letter to parents accompanies every book.
Set to debut August 15, Fox Family Channel-the U.S.’s latest entrant into preschool broadcasting-plans to differentiate itself by offering quality programming that both kids and their caregivers will enjoy. Maureen Smith, newly appointed general manager at Fox Kids Network and executive vice president at Fox Family Worldwide, explains, ‘We want parents to be thinking, ‘Here’s a place where I can sit down and watch programming with my preschoolers, not some place I [can] park my preschooler and leave the room.”
The channel plans to achieve this goal by providing programming with upbeat, parent-friendly music and original programs like The All New Captain Kangaroo, an updated version of the classic series. According to Smith, advertising and promotions for the overall Fox Family Channel launch will support the preschool block, as will on-air promotions in adult day parts.
Treehouse TV, Canada’s new all-day, all-preschool cable channel, was launched in November 1997. Peter Moss, vice president of programming and production for Treehouse TV and for Canada’s 10-year-old kids channel YTV, which has a weekday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. preschool block, says that winning over parents requires both strong individual programs as well what he calls ‘a trusted broadcast environment.’
‘Parents want to feel safe. They may not know what show comes next [on Treehouse TV], but they [should] trust the fact that it’ll be OK.’
One of the challenges facing Treehouse TV and YTV’s preschool block has been differentiating themselves from the strong branding of YTV and YTV’s core older audience. ‘The way that we [YTV] approach kids who are seven to 12 or 12 to 15 is very successful,’ says Moss. ‘But the kind of strong, in-your-face visuals that we do, which work so well for that age group, don’t work so well for preschool. So I think that parents [of preschoolers] might pick up that noise,’ he says.
As to just how the fledgling network plans to go about addressing this issue and gaining parents’ trust, Moss remains cagey, but he cites on- and off-air promotions, radio campaigns, TV advertising on fellow Shaw Media-owned specialty network Country Music Television, and ads in parenting magazines as tactics under consideration.
In the U.K., the entirely commercial-free Disney Channel is a relative newcomer to the British airwaves. It launched in 1995 and relaunched its preschool block last summer with expanded programming and wraparound hosted segments. In addition, windowing agreements with terrestrial broadcasters ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC have allowed Disney Channel to air top preschool shows in the U.K., such as Sesame Street. Parent-targeted initiatives include on-air promotions during Disney Channel’s evening family block and a monthly column in Parents magazine by the block’s host Dave Benson-Phillips.
Meanwhile, ITV faces pubcasting king the BBC head-on in the 3:25 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. slot, with its CITV block of two rotating 10-minute shows. Each of the broadcasters garners about one-third of the audience for the period. ITV’s controller of children’s programs, J. Nigel Pickard, says that the broadcaster uses ‘daily promotions within the CITV block, plus promotions during the day aimed at housewives’ to reach preschoolers’ parents.
Overall, the public broadcasters we spoke to appeared fairly sanguine about the advances of commercial broadcasters onto the preschool turf, an attitude that perhaps stems from a sense of comfort in their lengthy and successful preschool track records and relative lack of competition in the past. However, the apparent optimism aside, it’s evident that pubcasters are starting to step up their offense.
Theresa Plummer-Andrews, head of acquisitions and co-productions for BBC Children’s, says, ‘We look at everybody as a competitor. We treat the preschool block the same way as we treat the older children block. We have to have competitive programs.’
In a rather unique move, the BBC currently provides a two-hour branded block of programming on Nickelodeon UK called CBBC. The BBC has complete editorial control over CBBC, even producing the linking segments for the block. Plummer-Andrews explains: ‘We have the [CBBC] bug [logo] going throughout the block so that parents will know it’s BBC programming.’ She claims that the BBC’s main competitive advantage over other terrestrial broadcasters is having more airtime devoted to preschool and therefore being able to offer a greater variety of programming. Cable and satellite broadcasters, such as Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, do not yet pose a significant ratings threat because of the lesser penetration of cable and satellite in the U.K.
In Canada, the CBC has added an hour to its preschool block for the fall and will be branding the block Children’s CBC, with on-air hosts and a state-of-the-art virtual set. ‘The children’s market is becoming more competitive, and in order to stay ahead of the game, we have to employ more and more creativity,’ says Adrian Mills, creative head of children’s, youth and day part, adding that the virtual set represents a significant financial and technological investment from the CBC, ‘which is unusual in preschool.’
Mills feels that the CBC’s big advantage vis-ˆ-vis commercial broadcasters ‘lies in the network’s ability to innovate and take risks and to spend money developing product,’ instead of being driven by profit objectives, which can lead to an overemphasis on merchandising revenue. ‘The big difference is we don’t sell to children. I think that parents have as much difficulty with the amount of selling that’s going on as they do with the amount of violence their children are exposed to [on TV].’
In the U.S., PBS has caught attention with its recent launch of Teletubbies. PBS’s director of children’s programming, Alice Cahn, says that as a public broadcaster, PBS has been in the business all along of ‘broadcasting programs that are commercially viable and excellent for children.’ She says she is thrilled that there is more good-quality programming on TV for preschoolers to choose from, and that she still has ‘every confidence that public television is the place parents go to and trust [for preschool].’
In terms of PBS’s response to increasing competition in the preschool marketplace, while Cahn would not go into detail, she did say that fall 1998 will see ‘an increased promotional presence and branding emphasis.’